A decade of tablet PCs: What have I learned?

A decade of tablet PCs: What have I learned?

Summary: It's been 10 years since I bought my first tablet PC. How far have we come since then?

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Just over 10 years ago, at the end of January 2003, I bought my first tablet PC. It was an HP Compaq TC1000, a convertible slate format device. I was working as a consultant in an Anglo-US IT consulting organisation, and I'd decided that the pen and digital ink model in Microsoft's tablet PC vision was something that could make my working life easier.

The TC1000 with its removable keyboard and binder-like case rapidly became my standard mobile machine. It did have its flaws: the pen technology used by HP needed an AAAA battery (a size I never knew existed), additional memory compromised the airflow over the processor causing random thermal shutdowns, and the Transmeta processor never quite had the horsepower promised. Even so, there was something there.

The HP Compaq TC1000
The HP Compaq TC1000: my introduction to the world of Tablet PC. (Image: HP)

Being able to take handwritten notes in a meeting changed relationships with colleagues. I wasn't hidden behind a screen, and the pen's early natural user interface made it easy to work and talk at the same time — especially as that was the year I changed career, becoming a freelance tech journalist. Note-taking became increasingly important, and the digital pen a key part of my workflow.

However the first generation of tablet PCs arrived before Intel's Centrino chipset, and while the Transmeta processor in the TC1000 was lower power than its Intel equivalents, power was an issue, and even with two batteries it wouldn't last more than a half day or so. I had to keep another machine at hand for writing, and that meant my backpack could get very heavy...

The second and third generation tablet PCs were built around Centrino, and power and performance were much improved. The TC1000 was replaced by one of the first third-generation devices, a Toshiba Portege M200. This was more like it, a true convertible laptop with a massive 1,400x1050-pixel screen. It's still one of the highest resolution laptops I've owned, and was an ideal machine for writing code, long articles, and of course, taking notes — using the then recently released Microsoft OneNote.

The Toshiba Portege M200
The Toshiba Portege M200. Nearly 10 years old, but still one of the best laptops I've ever used, if you wanted to stick with XP. (Image: Toshiba)

Unfortunately for the M200 it was built around NVIDIA's Go200 graphics card, and when Vista came along it got left behind, driverless and forgotten. There were hacks that let you get working, but you had to drop screen resolution to avoid crashes. It just wasn't worth the hassle, and mine stayed on XP until my next tablet PC came along.

The tablet PC was never very popular, and by the time I replaced the M200 there were very few devices on the market that weren't targeted at vertical markets. One manufacturer who kept the tablet PC faith was HP, and their TC4400 was a high-end laptop that just happened to be a convertible tablet. I suspect I would have been very happy with it for longer than the two or three months I used it, but sadly, somewhere over the Great Lakes, while I was working away, a carelessly reclined aircraft seat damaged the screen beyond repair. Like the Highlander, it was decapitated...

TC4400
TC4400 vs reclined airline seat: there can be only one. (Image: HP)

The dead TC4400 was quickly replaced by another HP tablet PC, a 2710p. A Core 2 Duo processor gave it plenty of power, and an extra slab battery gave it plenty of life. Over the years, I maxed out its memory, but never got round to replacing its tiny 80GB 1.8-inch hard drive. This was the tablet PC I'd been looking for, light and easy to use. I went through two sets of batteries, taking it from Vista to Windows 7. Then one day, at the Internet Explorer 9 launch event, I managed to spill water into a vent, damaging the display circuitry.

The HP 2710P
The HP 2710P: we had many happy years together, until a drinking problem got in the way... (Image: HP)

Its replacement was, not surprisingly, another tablet PC. This time, however, it was a consumer machine. HP had decided that the tablet PC should be part of its TouchSmart line of devices, and was mixing capacitive touchscreens with the familiar Wacom pen sensors. The tm2 had two points of touch along with a pen, in the familiar convertible form factor. It wasn't the lightest machine around (by a long way) but when you twisted the screen, the curved battery became a convenient grip.

The HP tm2
The HP tm2: Windows 8 came along and gave it a whole new lease on life. (Image: HP)

I didn't use touch much. It never really worked for me with Windows 7, and it was only with the arrival of the Release Preview of Windows 8 that I started finding it usable. Two points were enough for Windows 8's gesture language, and while the screen resolution didn't let me use Snap, I found Windows 8 gave the aging machine a whole new lease on life.

Now here we are, a decade into my tablet PC ownership, and five machines down. The tm2 is working well, but it's starting to feel a little too bulky when I look at the current run of ultrabooks and lightweight Apple hardware. So you probably won't be surprised to learn that last week, on a trip to Toronto, I popped by a Microsoft Store and picked up a 64GB Surface Pro and a 64GB microSD card. After all, when a friend on Twitter asked what the Surface Pro was for, I'd answered, "For those of us who still miss the HP Compaq TC1000".

It feels like I've come full circle...

Topics: Tablets, Mobility, Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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24 comments
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  • Your experiences are almost my experiences

    I started with Samsung Q1 though. :)
    Ram U
    • What amazes me...

      It amazes me that Apple was able to patent aspects of the tablet at all considering a lot of us were using tablets LONG before Apple "invented them." It just shows how stupid and corrupt our patent office really is. Even the original U.S.Robotics Pilot (before it became Palm) was a small touch screen tablet device. That was decades ago.
      BillDem
  • PC industry says "thank you"

    How nice of you that you spent a small fortune into half-cooked devices hardly making your business life more comfy. Being an enthusiast comes at a high price, literally.
    EnticingHavoc
    • They are a higher priced device....

      .....but they're worth the productivity gains. I've had a few tablets including my favorite, the Asus R1F. Convertibles coupled with Microsoft OneNote make them unbeatable. I'm going to be picking up a Surface Pro as well.
      alsw
      • Once you go OneNote...

        ...it's my main reason for a tablet lifestyle!
        sbisson
        • My first MS-WinTel product purchase in 8 yrs was for a Surface Pro

          And a principle reason behind that purchase was to experience the OneNote productivity app.
          kenosha77a
  • A decade of Tablet PCs: What have I learned?

    I've learned that tablets usually used as toys for people who want an overpriced and locked down device to tinker around on Facebook, check their Twitter status updates, and pay for inexpensive applications to entertain them. I've also learned that tablets are the perfect device for people who know very little about computers.
    zealaudio
    • Three decades behind the wheel

      Three decades behind the wheel of a car and what have I learned? That most cars are driven by people who cannot name even one of the parts they see when a machanic pops the hood.

      Your dismissive attitude is both elitist and irrelevant. Tablet sales are mounting, even as sales of traditional PCs are tanking. Why? Because tablets do exactly what most people want their computer to do. The days of poking through your registry to fix an issue, or de-fragmenting your hard drive are over for most people. And like low end manufacturing jobs, they're not coming back.

      Behold: THE POST-PC ERA IS UPON US!
      dsf3g
      • Re:

        Do you feel better now that you vented?
        zealaudio
        • What a jerk!

          I bet you think typing at the shell prompt is heaven.
          Eric Gisin
          • You're the Jerk

            And I bet you troll other's comments all day long because you have a small dick.
            zealaudio
      • Some More Info for You

        By the way, Windows operating systems all have registries, it's just that tablets are severly locked down to keep computer challenged persons out of places they know nothing about. PC sales are down because people are keeping their PC's longer; processor technology has hit a bit of a roadblock in the last few years, as we're not seeing the performance leaps and bounds we did throughout the 90's and 2000's. There never used to be a choice between laptops, tablets, and PC's. It used to be a PC or the highway. Now that there's a choice, people who once were stuck with a PC only (who never wanted them but had no other alternative), are buying tablets and laptops.

        I'm sorry that the truth offends you, but take a look at the type of "work" most people do on tablets. As far as the elitist comment, that did give me a good laugh today.
        zealaudio
        • re: some more info for you

          Open your windows and see. There is this bigger world out there.

          Most of today's tablets don't run any form of Windows and don't have any kind of "registry" - hidden or not. Windows will soon be an old nightmare for most.
          danbi
          • RE:

            That's why I said "Windows operating systems", not iOS. And as far as your comment about Windows soon being an old nightmare, I hope that does come true, because I hate Windows.
            zealaudio
          • Open your eyes, and your mind, and see...

            that, Windows tablets haven't been around as long as iPads or Android tablets, thus, it would have been impossible for the newer Windows tablets to have been classified as part of "most of today's tablets".

            Try again in about a year or two, and you should notice a big difference, and that part about "Windows will soon be an old nightmare", is just you doing a lot of wishful thinking.
            adornoe
          • Re: Open your eyes, and your mind, and see...

            ...the Windows tablets mentioned in this very article, going back to before there was such a thing as Ipad or Android.

            Microsoft had the early lead, and squandered it.
            ldo17
          • Ido17: Try again...

            because, we're talking about the current generation of tablets and PCs and most other tech devices. What might have existed 10 years ago, cannot enter into current comparisons.
            adornoe
        • The reason desktop sales are declining.

          People are keeping their PCs longer, but not for the reasons you mentioned. Many of the people I know who bought tablets are using their PCs at least 90% less than they once did. They just can't justify spending money to upgrade a machine they barely use. In fact, I know a few people who have upgraded their tablet twice since their last desktop purchase. That indicates a widespread shift away from desktop computing, not a lack of progress in desktop CPUs.
          BillDem
      • lets not forget

        There will be always those, who will long for their Tamagotchi, take care if it, so that the poor thing does not die horrible death.

        The rest of us? We think computers exist to serve us.
        danbi
  • I hear you

    Thought it's been Motion Computing all the way for 6-7 years. Hoping to get my own Surface Windows 8 machine soon - maybe the rumored larger display one if they come out with it quickly enough.
    WebSiteManager